Families of World Cup migrant workers who died in Qatar await answers

Remark

NEW DELHI — The last time Ramulu Maraveni’s children saw their father was in March during a grainy video call from Qatar, where he worked. His two daughters, ages 18 and 16, needed dresses and his 10-year-old son asked for a teacup. They spoke before school the next morning. By the time the kids got home, Maraveni was dead.

Eight months later, his family, who live in India, still don’t know why.

Maraveni, 51, paved roads around World Cup stadiums and collapsed on the job, a colleague said. A death certificate from Qatar said the cause was “acute heart failure from natural causes”. He had been working grueling hours as Qatar raced to prepare for the tournament, his wife said. A few weeks before his death, he fainted. A doctor who examined him blamed low blood pressure, and he soon returned to work.

“It was hard work and continuous,” said his wife, Lavanya Maraveni, who estimated he earned between $500 and $600 a month. “But he remained committed to the future of our children.”

The construction company that had employed Ramulu Maraveni for 15 years sent his family a check for $3,000 to cover back wages and other benefits, his wife said.

Human rights groups say the unexplained deaths of thousands of migrant workers during Qatar’s nearly 12-year preparations for the World Cup have tarnished the tournament, revealing lax oversight by the international football governing body, FIFA, and poor working conditions in the host country.

For the worker’s relatives, the deaths have left grief and debt, but also a deep and disturbing uncertainty about how they died and what they ultimately owed.

For years there was no system — and seemingly no will — to vigorously investigate many of the deaths, rights groups said, the toll obscured by official certificates they attribute to natural causes, which under Qatari law required no follow-up.

Qatar has disputed the death toll, in part by insisting that infrastructure work, apart from World Cup stadiums, was unrelated to the tournament. It has also taken measures that labor and human rights groups say are important and will better protect workers if fully implemented.

Aside from the deaths, watchdog groups said many migrant workers trying to support families at home were trapped in a penal system that included paying exorbitant fees to recruiters, failure to pay wages and appalling conditions in labor camps. Many of those conditions remain.

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Qatar, the smallest country and the first Arab state to host the tournament, has rejected calls to join FIFA in contributing to a compensation fund for deceased workers and to create an independent body to investigate their deaths. Qatari officials say the country has already provided tens of millions of dollars to workers whose wages have been withheld by their companies.

Migrant workers make up the vast majority of Qatar’s population, with many Nepalese, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian workers working in low-paying jobs, including construction. They have played a central role in building the architecture of the World Cup – not just the stadiums, but also the highways and roads leading to them, an extensive subway system and hotels for fans.

Indians are the largest migrant group in Qatar. India’s foreign ministry has said nearly 2,400 of its citizens have died in Qatar between 2014 and 2021, without specifying the cause of the deaths. The ministry also said in February that Qatar topped the list of countries from which Indians sought compensation for worker fatalities, with 81 pending cases.

Rejimon Kuttappan, an Indian journalist working on migrant rights, said the Indian government is reluctant to provide more detailed information. “They continue to interfere with the data to maintain diplomatic ties and good friendship with Qatar,” he said at a briefing hosted by Human Rights Watch on Thursday.

Because Qatar’s death certificates often listed natural causes or cardiac arrest, it was generally difficult to prove how workers died, he added, even when relatives or colleagues believed “humidity or overwork or mental stress” were to blame. When bodies were returned to India, families rarely performed autopsies, he said, due to a desire to hold funerals quickly or because they were unaware such exams were an option.

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Maraveni, who hails from Shivangalapally, a village in southern India, had been working for Boom Construction in Qatar since 2007, according to a copy of a letter the company sent to his colleagues after his death and reviewed by The Washington Post. The letter asked his colleagues to offer “kindness and any assistance to his next of kin”; they responded by collecting nearly $500 to send to Lavanya and the three children.

The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment or a detailed list of questions about Maraveni’s employment history or the circumstances surrounding his death. A company employee told a Post reporter who visited Boom’s offices in Doha on Thursday that the chief of human resources, who had written the letter, was unavailable.

According to his flatmate and colleague, Maraveni had in recent years worked as a roller operator on the construction of roads in Qatar, including around the Lusail stadium, north of the center of Doha, where the World Cup final will be held.

Lavanya, 36, said her husband worked 12-hour shifts that often took longer. The work alternated between night and day shifts. In the run-up to the World Cup, the pressure mounted: Employees were given goals to complete no matter how much time it took, she recalled Maraveni telling her. The heat can be unbearable, often exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

“A lot of work is happening in Qatar at a very fast pace,” said a worker who knew Maraveni and spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his job. “I normally work eight-hour shifts, but at the moment I work 12 hours a day,” said the worker, who is employed by another company in Qatar.

The pace also meant there were fewer chances to go home to India. Maraveni had not seen his family for two years – he had hoped to get an allowance that would entitle workers who had been gone so long to a free ticket and two months’ leave. But his family said the company would not grant his leave because there was too much work.

A month before his death, Maraveni had passed out, an employee said. A private doctor told Maraveni the cause was low blood pressure, and he immediately resumed work, said the colleague, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from his employer.

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On March 19, Maraveni, who lived in the company’s labor camp, woke up earlier than his colleagues and cooked rice for the group, his colleague said. Hours later at work, he vomited and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to interviews with family members and the employee.

The uncertainty about the cause of his death, along with the lingering questions surrounding so many similar cases, is especially vexing given the vigor with which Qatar has moved to improve its labor practices on other fronts: granting migrant workers a minimum wage and the ability to change jobs. change, limiting working hours during the hottest months and promising to punish employers who withhold wages.

In an interview, Mahmoud Qutub, the director of worker welfare and labor rights at the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Qatar’s World Cup organizer, reiterated the government’s official position that only three worker deaths were directly related to the tournament. But he acknowledged there was “confusion and misunderstanding” on both sides of the debate, in part because of a lack of government data.

“The lesson learned is transparency,” he said, adding that a 2020 report from the International Labor Organization, which found 50 worker deaths that year, was an “important” step.

Life has changed dramatically for Maraveni’s family. Without her husband’s $350 monthly remittance, Lavanya said, they lived on the $80 she earns each month rolling cigarettes.

The three children – one of whom has a congenital defect – had to leave private school and are now attending public school.

Over the years, Maraveni had managed to repay the debt he took on to get the job in Qatar and expand their two-room mud house into a four-room brick house. He had even treated himself by buying a motorcycle.

His wife recently sold it to pay the school fees.

“Can you imagine the life of a widow?” said Lavanya. “Life seems meaningless without him, and I often don’t want to live any longer. But I have to, for our children.”

Fahim reported from Doha. B. Kartheek in Hyderabad, India, contributed to this report.

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